The great thing about pets is that you can snap just about any old photo of them, and they’ll look adorable. (Well, that’s one of the many great things about our furry friends.) However, just because your friends “ooh” and “ah” over your cell-phone snap of your pugnacious pug doesn’t mean it’s a work of art. When it comes to actual pet photography — creating a certifiable portrait of an animal subject that’s suitable for framing — there are many things to consider.
Non-human subjects present a number of challenges we don’t encounter with their bipedal counterparts, so knowing how to best approach them from behind the lens requires a combination of patience, practice, and expertise. Shutterstock contributor Annette Shaff has a portfolio bursting with brilliant pet pictures, so we thought she’d be perfect to provide you with some tips on how to get some equally great shots of your own.
Five tips for capturing beautiful photos of pets from Annette Shaff:
This boils down to two options: ambient light or studio lighting. NEVER use an on-camera flash aimed at a pet; not only will you get unsightly shadows, but chances are also very high that it will create a red-eye image. You’ve seen those glowing pet-eye photos — they’re funny, not good photos. Try to avoid direct sunlight between the hours of 10am and 4pm, give or take, depending upon the time of year and general weather. A cloudy day is great anytime for diffused natural lighting. If you’re going to use strobes, set them up with plenty of diffusion to avoid harsh shadows. If you don’t want to do the photo shoot outdoors and don’t have professional lighting equipment, you can use a room indoors with natural light coming though doors or windows. Try to make sure the animal is in a position that creates some catch light in its eyes. Regardless of what lighting you choose, use a shutter speed that is fast enough to catch any sudden movement, like a head shake from a dog or a pounce from a kitten. You don’t want your photos to come out as a furry blur.
Make sure you always have some treats to give each pet for its efforts. Talk to the animal and praise it; make the sitting something fun and enjoyable. Allow time to get to know the subject and its owner a little bit before you even start clicking the camera in its face. Speaking of, let each dog or cat see and smell your camera. Let it get used to the sound of the beeps and other noises it makes. Some animals will be startled if you immediately shove a lens in their faces and start clicking away. This might cause them to be timid during the rest of the photo shoot. Give them some space and time to explore if they come to your studio location. Ask the owners to bring something their pet likes, maybe a favorite toy — something that’s familiar to them. Encourage the owners to interact with their pets (behind the camera), so you can focus on capturing the moment.
Try to keep the session short, or break it up by giving the animal a break to do its own thing for a little while. The biggest key to photographing pets is going to be your patience. If you don’t have that, this might not be the best fit for you. Sometimes you just have to wait for “the shot.” That means you might have to follow Fido or Fluffy around and let them do what they do. The owner is going to want you to capture their furry baby’s personality, so let them show it to you on their own schedule. If you’re doing a studio session with a breed of dog that’s known for being high-energy, ask the owner to walk it before they arrive — unless a high-energy image is what you’re going for. There are people who would rather have a studio shot of their dog jumping for a ball or treat, rather than sitting still and looking at the camera. This is a good question to ask prior to the shoot, so that you have a clear idea of what your goal is.
Never force any animal to do something that it seems very uncomfortable doing. For instance, if you use costumes or props, make sure they are not too tight or hard to get on or take off. If they are, choose something else that fits better. Hats and glasses are fun, but the same rule applies; if the animal keeps trying to shake off the prop, listen to it. Think of them as small children who can’t verbally communicate with you. Sometimes even setting their favorite toy or another cute prop next to them can give the image a more personal touch. Go to thrift stores or watch sales for costumes and cute props, like baskets or wagons. Be creative!
When photographing pets, get down on their level. See the world from their viewpoint. If you are photographing a Great Dane, that’s not too hard; if it’s a Chihuahua, get down on your elbows, or even your belly. Unless you have a specific shot in mind, try to avoid taking the photo at a high angle where the pet has to continually look up at the camera. You want them to appear comfortable and natural. Try different lenses — a wide-angle lens is great for inquisitive animals who want to investigate your camera. A zoom lens will do wonders for shy pets, or for capturing a moment without being in the pet’s personal space. Get the owner involved in the shot — sometimes the pet’s personality can come surging out in a tender moment between them. Always be ready for it!
There are many other tips and tricks to photographing pets, but these pointers should get you started down the right path!